As a participant in the April 2008 Strategic Management Council (SMC) meeting that first explicitly discussed the issue of “generations” and NASA, I wanted to add some new material some recent discussion in this space and elsewhere about our workforce. I thought it would be particularly timely, considering Nick Skytland’s recent posting of an internal NASA email about recent NASA Strategic Management Council decision to target-hire younger workers, and, the recent posts on NASAWatch about the state of the Federal workforce. Many of the comments that followed on that website requested some data – data about NASA and the contractor workforce. To that end there are two attachments to read in support of this posting.
First is a paper written by me and my NASA HQ colleague Garth Henning. It was first drafted in 2006 and was updated in 2008 in advance of the aforementioned April ‘08 SMC. That paper, titled “The State of the Next Generation of Explorers,” can be found here at OpenNASA. In the rest of this post I refer to this paper as “the white paper” for simplicity. The white paper gives some details about NASA’s demographic history; suggests that paying attention to the combined issues of age and generational differences is worth some detailed attention; discusses what NASA “does” and how that has changed over time; discusses NASA’s relationship with industry now and over time; raises the question of future NASA success; and then suggests different paths forward for NASA as ways to address this demographic issue.
Second is a small set of charts used as “read-ahead” material to that April 2008 SMC. This presentation is titled “NextGen Workforce Data and Questions.” The read-ahead charts presented several questions to foster a discussion at the SMC. These read ahead charts are available here on OpenNASA, as is the final package we briefed to the SMC, which has been up here for some time (April 2008 SMC presentation). I invite you to take some time skimming them before reading the rest of this post.
The white paper points out, and it was discussed at length at our April SMC, that many of the Baby Boomer generation at NASA will be well into or past retirement eligibility by the time we hit 2020; that is, by the time we are supposed to be getting to the Moon, preparing for human missions to Mars, perhaps doing a robotic sample return to Mars, etc. Given that, a reasonable question to ask is – will the people we expect to be leading and managing the agency at that time be ready to do so? Garth and I didn’t know the answer to that question, so we tried to see if there was any data out there that might give us some hints.
In our paper we suggest that given NASA’s demographics and its recent hiring freeze, it now takes a civil servant longer than it ever has to get real management experience. This makes NASA very dependent on industry to develop future talent – management talent, system engineering talent, leadership talent in general, technical talent in general and so on. What we also learned however, and what we show in the white paper, is that the age demographics of the aerospace industry are the same as NASA’s. So – it’s not just NASA that is facing a workforce crisis. It’s all of aerospace – industry and government alike. From the point of view of NASA, this introduces a lot of uncertainty about future mission success.
Another reasonable question to ask therefore, if you are in the shoes of NASA senior leadership, is – is it okay to be dependent on industry if industry share’s NASA’s age problem? If not, what steps can be taken now to make sure that NASA has increased confidence in the preparedness of its future leaders? Stated differently, what are the appropriate steps to take now to assure mission success later?The question of relating future success to current NASA actions gets to the heart of our white paper and the heart of so much of what is discussed here at OpenNASA – what is NASA, and how does it accomplish what the nation expects of it? How does NASA handle its business? In our white paper we looked at what we call the “make/buy” question: how much does NASA do in-house (make), and how much does NASA contract-out (buy), and what impact does that decision have on the make-up of NASA’s workforce in terms of its age, skill mix, experience, and preparedness? Should NASA depend on industry to do the day-to-day work to train, develop, and prepare future leaders, or should NASA assume the lion’s share of that burden itself?
On this last question, we know the answer used to be “yes, NASA used to assume that burden itself.” We’ve all heard stories about the labs or fabrication facilities or flight experiments that our older colleagues took advantage of when they were in their 20’s; how past NASA engineers “cut their teeth” on the shop floors of GRC or JSC. That is not the NASA of today, and it is not the NASA of today by design. Garth and I are of the opinion that the NASA of tomorrow should be the NASA of those older days. It is time to redirect NASA’s mission back to a place where giving smart, young, inexperienced engineers room to roam, to fly stuff, to fail, and to learn, is as important as having well managed programs that fly complex missions to other planets which cannot afford to fail. I’m saying it’s time to redefine what it means for NASA to do its job. And that brings the focus squarely on the make/buy issue, because it has a significant impact on civil servant levels. As we write in the paper, “It seems small, but in-sourcing 1% of NASA’s work will have a dramatic impact on the requirement for civil servants. The corresponding increase in the size of the civil service workforce would range from 4% to 8%. If NASA chooses to “make” more, there will be more hands-on, non-managerial opportunities and more need to hire young civil servants.” To make that happen is complicated – and can lead to lengthy discussions on several topics. The chatter on the internet here and at other places seems to be focusing on a couple of specific questions, so I will address them here. I hope that anyone who reads this will comment on any or all of these points (or whatever I’ve written above).
1. Is this age discrimination?
I do not think so, no. I accept that by focusing on the NASA of 10-15 years from now we are in some ways forcing a focus on people who are relatively young and we are therefore, at least in some way, prioritizing that age cohort. But that’s not age discrimination, it’s just good planning.
2. Isn’t it too risky to have a focus on young people?
Well, I don’t know. But frankly, I don’t think so, not if your concern is experience and the often implicit assumption that people who are older have more of it. In this space and on other blogs the comment has been made that NASA should not hire inexperience college grads instead of experienced 40-(or so)-year-olds to manage programs. I think that’s a fair criticism. Hire people with experience for jobs that require experience. However – the question of experience is one worth thinking about in more detail, and perhaps more critically. Chart 8 of the read-ahead package shows that the average age of a new hire at NASA (a FTP hire) is now almost 40. A critical question to ask is how much of what NASA does right now requires people who are 40 (and therefore have all that experience) versus people who are 35 or 30 (and therefore have less)? Consider that question while looking at the last chart (chart 13) of the read-ahead package. Fifteen years ago NASA was either hiring or promoting its youngest supervisors in noticeable numbers at or around the age of 30. Now NASA is hiring people into those same kinds of positions at about the age of 40. Why is it that 30-year-olds were good for supervisor spots in 1994 but apparently not so in 2008, particularly considering that NASA was doing basically the same set of tasks in 1994 as it is now? Is NASA so different now as compared to then? It’s worth thinking about, even if the answer is yes. And, we are saying that given the leverage you get from in-sourcing 1% of your funds you can accomplish this task without much (if any) new money, without much (if any) impact to current missions, and without forcing a “younger vs. older” false choice.
3. Isn’t there a national problem of too few people with the right education for this work?
Well, again, I don’t know. The demographic information presented in the read ahead charts (chart 9) suggests that getting young people who can do complicated math or who know how to build things into your industry might not be all that difficult, if you’re in an industry other than aerospace. The people are out there.
But if they are out there, how do you get them to NASA? How do you attract them? Salaries and project content for this new in-sourced work is important. Where does the money come from, exactly – that’s important. But anyone familiar with how NASA gets its money out the door knows that there are ample ways to find savings that can equal 1% of our procurement dollars without significant impact to existing work. It might not be easy to do – reform is not easy, but it is the challenge we face.
4. Is this the correct government policy?
Obviously I think so or I wouldn’t have suggested it. Perhaps you think NASA should work more closely with academic institutions to accomplish this task. Perhaps you think the current relationship with industry is the right one, and that more NASA money flowing to industry will mean more young engineers getting more hands-on experience. Perhaps it’s something else. Perhaps you think NASA should go away so that something new can take its place?
Well – I think that’s a good start for my first post. I look forward to comments!